Collection of Ethiopian Icons
Will Be Exhibited in Saugatuck
Posted August 4, 1998
HOLLAND -- A collection of handpainted icons by
five contemporary Ethiopian artists will be exhibited on
Sunday-Saturday, Aug. 16-22, at the Water Street Gallery,
located at 546 Butler Street in Saugatuck.
There will be an opening reception at the gallery
on Sunday, Aug. 16, from noon to 5 p.m. The public is
invited, and admission is free.
The icons are a form of religious artwork, a
tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The 30 works in
the exhibition have been collected by Dr. Neal Sobania, who
is director of international education and professor of
history at Hope. The five artists featured are all
descendants of Aleqa Yohannis Teklu, an Ethiopian artist who
died in 1978.
According to Sobania, Christianity was introduced
in Ethiopia in the early fourth century at the court of the
King of Aksum, an empire that was a trading partner with the
Roman and Byzantine empires. "Aksum was an important node
in the trade and communications networks that stretched from
the Mediterranean and Red Sea to India and beyond," he said.
"Before its collapse in the eighth century, Aksum
set in motion the spread of Christianity across northeast
Africa," he said. "Over the centuries, the Ethiopian
Orthodox Church has survived Muslim invasions and
encroachment, forced conversions to Roman Catholicism and
most recently a reign of terror by a regime that terrorized
and oppressed the general population. At the heart of this
achievement of survival is the crucial role played by the
church's visual culture."
The icons are paintings on carved pieces of wood--
some small enough to be worn as pendants, others larger
panels that are displayed. The colorful paintings may
depict scenes from the Bible, saints or biblical figures, or
other similarly-themed images.
All five of the artists, whose ages range from 15
to 30, are from Aksum, a city in northern Ethiopia. The
city hosts the mother church of the Ethiopian Orthodox
faith, the 16th century cathedral of Maryam Tsion (St.
Mary's of Zion), and according to Sobania is renowned for
its production of religious art.
Aleqa Yohannis Teklu, Sobania said, was especially
known as a painter of church murals and illuminations for
sacred texts, the two other primary forms of religious art
associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In addition
to being related to Aleqa Yohannis, all five of the artists
with works in the exhibition have been trained by one of his
grandsons, Berhane Meskel Fisseha, who Sobania said is today
"recognized as Aksum's premier painter of church art." Both
Aleqa Yohannis Teklu and Berhane Meskel Fisseha have murals
in the cathedral in Aksum.
The artists with work in the exhibition are Daniel
Berhane Meskel, Gebre Merha Yohannis, Haile Alemseged,
Meserat Kasahun and Yordannes Berhane Meskel.
Daniel Berhane Meskel, age 19, is the eldest of
Berhane Meskel's seven children, and a great-grandson of
Aleqa Yohannis Teklu. Gebre Merha Yohannis, age 20, is a
priest, and is a grandson of Aleqa Yohannis Teklu. Haile
Alemseged, age 30, is a grandson of Aleqa Yohannis Teklu.
Meserat Kasahun, age 18, is a great-grandson of Aleqa
Yordannes Berhane Meskel, age 15, is the eldest
daughter of Berhane Meskel, and a great-granddaughter of
Aleqa Yohannis Teklu. As a woman, she is not allowed in the
cathedral in Aksum, and has not seen her father's and great-
grandfather's murals there. "As there is no tradition of
women painters in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Yordannes
is charting new territory; few in Aksum even know she
paints," Sobania said.
The Water Street Gallery is open Monday through
Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5
p.m. The icons will be available for purchase.